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'A sad situation': Richmond Hill food bank serves more first-time clients during pandemic

#FoodForThought: Food bank visits hit 5-year high in 2021
March 1, 2022
Yoyo Yan

Ashamed, bewildered, embarrassed. These are some of the emotions felt by those who set foot in food banks for the first time.

That is why Marney Beck Robinson, who volunteers at the Richmond Hill Community Food Bank, always tries to be extra patient and friendly with first-time clients.

"They've never had to ask for food before," said Robinson. "So, sometimes they don't even look you in the eyes."

"Sometimes they're abrupt or they act angry, but I know it's just a cover for being embarrassed."

Time after time she has people who have worked all their adult lives but have to turn to the food bank for the very first time. Some cry while she serves them.

"It's a sad situation for them that they're there, especially during the pandemic."

Sadly and ironically, with restaurants constantly closed, some chefs and waitresses, who usually prepare food for people, find themselves in need of help from the food bank, said Robinson.

"We continue to see people accessing our food bank who have been significantly affected by the pandemic," said Lee Reynolds, Richmond Hill Community Food Bank's general manager.

"Job Losses, business closures and reduced incomes have resulted in many people turning to us for help for the first time in their lives," said Reynolds.

"Our volunteers work empathetically to turn that very difficult first step of coming to a food bank into a friendly and positive experience."

Pre-pandemic, the Richmond Hill Community Food Bank served 10,327 clients in 2017, which rose rapidly to a year-end total of 14,561 in 2019. This represented a 40 per cent increase in people accessing the food bank in three years.

A total of 14,688 individuals accessed the food bank in 2020, and the demand rose to 15,194 in 2021, when food bank visits hit a five-year high despite pandemic lockdowns and restrictions.

In December 2021, volunteers served a record 1,605 people in a single month at the food bank. As many as 40 per cent of people relying on the food bank are children.

2022 is trending for another increase in client visits. In January, 1,559 individuals were served by the food bank, which is a 48 per cent increase over the five-year average.

Due to constraints such as losing volunteers and capacity limits, the pandemic significantly impacted the food bank's operation in many ways.

“But we never closed and kept our five-day per week operation open and accessible to clients,” said Reynolds, the general manager.

To help meet the increasing demand, the food bank increased its client service area by taking on an additional 1,000 sq. feet of floor space in 2020.

The agency also initiated a home delivery service in 2021 to ensure some of the vulnerable clients received food relief.

Additionally, the food bank continues to find ways to meet the special food needs of an increasingly culturally and religiously diverse community. It has connected with businesses and social groups to provide food selections such as Halal meat products, Kosher food items and vegetarian meals.

“Over the past five years, our community has gained a greater awareness of their local food bank and how it provides such a vital service to those in need,” said Fergie Reynolds, board chair of the Richmond Hill food bank.

“Local residents and businesses, as well as our faith groups and social clubs, have generously stepped up during the pandemic with donations to help us keep our doors open and provide food relief to local families and individuals.”